Corporate and Individual Election

by Grover Gunn

    Another area where new ideas are surfacing is the relationship of corporate and individual election. Corporate election refers to God's choosing the church in history as His Own special people. Individual election refers to God's unconditionally choosing in eternity past specific individuals to receive saving grace. There is considerable overlap here because God has entrusted to the church the means of grace which God normally uses in bringing the elect to salvation. Yet there are many in the historical church who are not God's elect. It is also possible in special circumstances for some of God's elect to be saved without ever being a part of the visible church.

As we explore the relationship between corporate and individual election, we don't find answers to every question. Individual election, rooted in God's secret decretive will, relates to the church in its invisible aspect, the church as only God can see it. Corporate election relates to the church in the historical process, which is regulated by God's revealed prescriptive will. God's revealed will defines human responsibility within history, and God's decretive will establishes God's sovereign control over history. With both the secret and the revealed aspects of God's will involved in this relationship between corporate and individual election, there will be a degree of mystery. I agree with Spurgeon's classic statement on divine sovereignty and human responsibility:

I do not believe they can ever be welded into one upon any earthly anvil, but they certainly shall be one in eternity. They are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the human mind which pursues them farthest will never discover that they converge, but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring.
Rather than insist that every question be answered and every loose end tied, we should heed the counsel of John Calvin regarding "learned ignorance":
... I reverently adore with fear and trembling what is too sublime for the angels themselves. Often therefore in my writings I admonish my readers, that on this subject nothing is better than a learned ignorance; for those rave like madmen who arrogate to know more about it than is fit (The Secret Providence, page 46).

In regard to corporate and individual election, there is a natural tendency to try to remove the mystery in their relationship. The two opposite extremes in this are the Baptist and Roman Catholic positions. According to the Baptist view, only those who are members of the church from its invisible perspective can be valid members of the visible church. According to the Roman Catholic view, everyone who is a member of the visible church is a member of the church from its invisible perspective. Both of these views identify the membership of the church from both the visible and the invisible perspective as the same set of people and thus remove much of the mystery.

Among those who acknowledge that the membership of the church from these two perspectives is not identical, some limit the mystery in lesser degrees. Some overemphasize the invisible and individual aspects of salvation at the expense of the visible and corporate. For example, some limit the grace the non-elect receive in corporate election to mere outward privileges and downplay the importance of the means of grace in the visible church. Others overemphasize the visible and corporate aspects of salvation at the expense of the invisible and individual. For example, some argue that all the members of the visible church are saved, but only the elect will persevere in that salvation. Both of these approaches, the overly individualistic and the overly corporate, are rationalistic distortions of the Biblical message. I believe the relationship between corporate and individual election is in accordance with these principles:

  1. The church in history should be administered in accordance with principles revealed in Scripture. We can't administer the church in terms of the decree of election because it is secret.
  2. The non-elect in the church often receive more than mere outward privileges. They may also experience what the Westminster Confession of Faith calls "common operations of the Spirit" (WCF 10.4). The visible church can have a sanctifying influence on the non-elect among its membership analogous to the sanctifying influence of a godly wife on an unbelieving husband (1 Corinthians 7:14).
  3. Christ accomplished redemption in history in terms of the decree of election, and the Holy Spirit applies that redemption in history also in terms of the decree of election. When the Holy Spirit works grace in the lives of the non-elect, that grace is always the resistible grace of His common operations. The Holy Spirit works special and irresistible grace only in the lives of the elect.
  4. Though the non-elect can be valid members of the visible church in history, they are never in that vital covenant union with Christ that is the basis for full salvation.
  5. We have to relate to the visible church in history in terms of outward appearances. We regard everyone in the church in terms of their profession and baptism except when someone's conduct compels us to do otherwise.
  6. We know there are people in the church whom we today regard as saved whom we will one day learn were never saved.
  7. All the members of the covenant community have both the promises and the obligations of the covenant. The obligations of the covenant are faith, repentance and new obedience. In order to receive that which is promised in the covenant, the members of the covenant must meet the obligations of the covenant. Only the elect, who receive the enabling grace of God, meet the obligations of the covenant.

Parable of the Soils

What I want to do next is to examine Scriptures which relate to the relationship of corporate and individual election. I will begin with the parable of the soils. In this parable, the seed, representing the gospel message, falls upon four types of soil: hardened, thorny, stony and good. The soil represents the hearts of those who hear the gospel message. In analyzing the parable, we need to remember that although we can see soil, we cannot see the hearts of those with whom we share the gospel. The hardened soil is the only one of the four where there is no appearance of life from the sown seed. The seed never penetrates the ground and is soon eaten by birds. This represents those who pay no heed to the gospel message and soon forget about it.

With the other three types of soil, the seed sprout and produce plants. These plants on three types of soil represent three types of professing converts. At the beginning, all three types have life and none are bearing any fruit. There is nothing to significantly distinguish them except the soil they are in, and that represents the human heart which we cannot see. This newly sprouted life represents a profession of faith and membership in the visible church and thus participation in corporate election.

Over time, very significant and discernible differences in the plants develop due to the different character of the three soils. Only the plants in good soil bear fruit. The good soil represents hearts prepared by the irresistible regenerating work of the Holy Spirit to respond to the gospel with saving faith. The fruit as the outward manifestation of inner regeneration, sets the good soil plants apart from all others. Some good soil plants bear more fruit than others, but they all and they alone bear fruit.

Notice that the plants on the stony and thorny soils do not bear fruit temporarily and then stop; they never bear fruit. They are like the fig tree which Jesus cursed: all leaves and no fruit (Mark 11:13). Also, notice that the stony and thorny soils are not good soil that stopped being good soil and became rocky or thorny soil; these soils were never that good soil which represents a regenerate heart. This parable points to the balanced view that the non-elect can be part of the church from its visible aspect but not from its invisible aspect. The plants in three types of soil represent elect and non-elect together in the visible church. In the early stage of development, one cannot easily distinguish the life which results from the common operations of the Spirit, from the life which results from the irresistible regenerating work of the Spirit. This stage of development represents the church in history when the church as we see it (its visible aspect) differs from the church as God sees it (its invisible aspect). At this stage, corporate election includes some not included in individual election.

After a period of time, the presence of fruit sets apart and identifies the plants which have the good soil of regenerate hearts. Only the plants in good soil are able to produce that fruit which gives outward evidence of the inward reality of true salvation.

Romans 11

Another good passage of Scripture is Romans 11 where Paul uses the olive tree as a metaphor for spiritual Israel (vv. 16-24). This passage clearly illustrates the principles found in God's revealed will for the administration of the covenant in history. Natural branches represent covenant children who receive household baptism. Grafted on wild branches represent adults who become part of the church through proselyte baptism. Broken off branches represent those who fall away and leave the church. Both natural branches and grafted on branches can be broken off. Also, broken off branches can be grafted back in; the falling away can be temporary backsliding or it can be permanent apostasy.

Here we have an even clearer picture that the non-elect can be for a time a part of the covenant community in history. We see here illustrated the principle that not all Israel (corporate election) are of Israel (individual election), that not everyone who is a Jew outwardly (corporate election) is a Jew inwardly (individual election). Branches are grafted in because of professed faith and broken off because of manifested unbelief. This illustrates the covenant as historically administered and not the covenant in terms of the decree of election. Faith in this context is that credible profession of faith through which a pagan becomes a member of the visible church. A branch can appear sound until some event occurs which demonstrates its true nature. The coming of the Messiah into the world was such an event for the Jews. The Jews of that time had to respond to that event, and those who did not respond in faith manifested that they were not truly "of Israel" (Romans 9:6) and so were removed from the visible church. Paul specifically warns the Christians at Rome that this will happen to them as well if they ever manifest similar unbelief.

All the branches partake of the root and fatness of the olive tree. For the non-elect, this refers to the common operations of the Spirit which enable them to stand by faith for a time. For the elect, this sap is the irresistible work of the Spirit which produces true saving faith, which perseveres. Regarding the sap which flows to the elect, we can be "confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work ... will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6). The sap cannot be an undifferentiated flow to elect and non-elect alike or else all would persevere and all would be fruitful.

John 15

This organic metaphor is developed even further in John chapter 15 where instead of an olive tree, we have a grape vine. The olive tree and the grape vine were the only two ancient symbols for Israel in the vegetable realm. Here the grape vine is identified with Jesus, who is the true Seed of Abraham and the true Israel of God. The people of God are here branches on the Vine. Verse 2 says, "Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away." Normally "in Christ" refers to that vital covenant union with Christ which is the essence of salvation. Here "in Him" is used to refer to all of those who are a part of the covenant community within history. Jesus as the Vine is the true Israel, and not all branches on the Vine of Israel are of Israel in the sense of individual election. In John 15, that vital covenant union which is the essence of salvation is referred to as abiding in Christ. Those who abide in Christ are those who are truly born again (cf. 1 John 3:6 & 3:9; 2:3 & 3:24). Every branch is responsible for abiding in the Vine, which is both necessary and sufficient for bearing fruit. In other words, no branch can bear fruit without abiding in the Vine, and every branch that abides in the Vine will bear fruit. The branches which are cut off are not described as those who stopped abiding in Christ and thus stopped bearing fruit. All that is said is that they do not bear fruit. Nothing is said to indicate they ever did. This is consistent with the parable of the soils where only the good soil plants bore any fruit. "By their fruit you will know them."

In one sense, the non-elect are in Christ while they are members of the covenant community in history. In another deeper, more significant sense, they are never really a part of God's people. This is made clear in 1 John 2:19:

They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.

Matthew 18:23-35

An article on the internet uses the parable of the unforgiving servant to argue that God forgives the non-elect as long as they stay in the visible church. In the parable, a master forgives a servant a great debt. The servant then refuses to forgive a fellow servant a small debt, and the master learns of this. At that point, the master throws the unforgiving servant into prison. The argument is that just as the master forgave the servant his debt for a time, so God forgives the non-elect in the church as long as they are members in good standing.

I believe the key to addressing this argument is to ask specifically what is meant by forgiveness in the context of the parable. According to the principles of covenant administration, the servant received both the promise and the obligations of the covenant. The promise of forgiveness was never unconditional in the sense that he was forgiven irrespective of his future behavior. The forgiveness the master gave him was from the beginning forgiveness consistent with the Lord's Prayer petition, "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." The master in the parable represents God, but only God as He operates within history. The master of the parable could not represent God in His eternity. From His eternal perspective, God knows the end from the beginning and knows the nature of the root before any fruit, either good or bad, is born. From this perspective, God knows from the beginning which of His servants in history have their sins cast into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19) and removed from them as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12).

Calvin in his commentary on Matthew 18:31-33 says,

As to the clause which immediately follows, it is foolish to inquire how God punishes those sins which he has already forgiven; for the simple meaning is this: though he offers mercy to all, yet severe creditors, from whom no forgiveness can be obtained, are unworthy of enjoying it.
Calvin there calls the forgiveness in the parable an offer of mercy.

It is instructive that in this parable, the unforgiving servant ends up paying his original debt and more. The master's original response to his servant's great debt was to plan on selling the servant, his family and his possessions and applying the money received to the debt. Considering the size of the servant's debt to his master, that punishment seems mild. The master upon discovering the servant's unforgiving spirit withdraws the previously offered forgiveness. The master doesn't reason that he had already forgiven this servant his original debt and so now he can only punish him only for throwing the second servant into prison. No, the master throws the unforgiving servant to the tormentors until he repays fully his original debt. This man's last state is much worse than his original when the master was planning on selling him. So this man's debt was never forgiven in any totally unconditional sense. What the master had done was to promise his servant forgiveness if indeed the servant met the obligations of the covenant. As we apply this to our experience of salvation, we need to remember that all those whom God truly forgives, He will also enable to be forgiving. Thus forgiving is not a price we pay to be forgiven but an evidence that we are forgiven. If we are not forgiving, that is evidence that we were never really forgiven.

The "If Indeed" Qualification

From the perspective of God's secret decree and individual election, God gives salvation unconditionally. From the perspective of God's revealed will and corporate election, God promises salvation to those who meet the obligations of the covenant. Salvation is still all of grace because God gives the elect the ability to meet the obligations of the covenant, which are saving faith and its necessary fruits. In several places, the New Testament specifies that the promises God gives to His people corporately will be fulfilled individually if indeed God enables them to meet the obligations of the covenant:

We need to remember these qualifications in our understanding of the relationship between corporate and individual election. For example, take Paul's letter to the Ephesians. In the first fourteen verses, Paul talks about the many spiritual blessings that belong to him and to those to whom he is writing. He mentions election, adoption, redemption, forgiveness, and the sealing of the Spirit. Does this mean that all of these spiritual benefits belonged to everyone whose name was on the church roll at Ephesus? I think the "if indeed" qualifications help us to answer that question correctly. On one level, Paul regarded everyone who was corporately elect as individually elect. He treated them as if they were inwardly what they professed to be outwardly. He considered their baptism with water as the sacramental counterpart of a baptism with the Spirit. Yet on another level, Paul recognized that there were some who were not what they professed to be. If we read far enough in Ephesians, we will find one of Paul's qualifying statements in that letter:

Or take Paul's first letter to the church at Corinth. The letter is written to the church. Paul refers to the ones to whom he is writing as the body of Christ (12:27), and he says that he and they were baptized into that body by the Holy Spirit (12:13). These statements are generally true because there is a large correspondence between corporate election and individual election. Yet there are exceptions to the rule and there are these "indeed if" qualifying statements. In chapter 5, Paul exhorts the Corinthians to purge from their midst certain public sinners who were called brothers. In chapter 6, Paul reminds them that the unrighteous cannot inherit the kingdom of God. In chapter 10, Paul warned them against idolatry and sexual immorality by reminding them that many of those corporately redeemed from Egypt in the Exodus perished individually in the wilderness for their sins. In chapter 15, he has one of those qualifying statements (v. 2).

The Apostasy Passages

There are apostasy passages which make clear that those who abandon the faith have forfeited much. They are in a sense severed from Christ (Galatians 5:4; John 15:2). Yet there is another sense in which they never were a part of God's people. In terms of the church as God sees it, such people were never a part of God's people, and their leaving merely made this clear from the human perspective. This is the message of 1 John 2:19:

They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.
Those who apostatize could not have had that union with Christ that truly saves because that union cannot be lost (John 10:28). What they did experience were blessings such as the resistible common operations of the Spirit, the gifts of the Spirit, the outward cleansing of baptism with water, and the sanctifying peer pressure of the people of God.

Peter talks about some who apostatized in 2 Peter 2:20-22:

These apostates did forfeit much. Through their association with Jesus and His church, they had for a time escaped from the pollutions of this world. For a time, they had not walked in open sin as the rest of the Gentiles walked. Yet one cannot keep that up when his heart has not been changed, for out of the heart proceed all manner of things that defile a man. Peter uses two graphic proverbs that indicate that their temporary reformation was outward only. These apostates had been washed through their baptism with water, but they were still pigs at heart. They manifested this when they returned to wallowing in the mire of their old sinful ways. They had been fed holy food, but they were still dogs at heart, and so their appetites had not changed. They manifested this when they returned to their former repulsive diets.

(Grover Gunn is Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Tennessee.)

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